Subway in a legal battle over the term "footlong"

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A jury in an Iowa court may soon be debating noun vs. verb use, hyphenation and twelve-inch sandwiches. Casey's General Stores Inc., which is based in Ankeny, Iowa, filed a lawsuit against Subway in U.S. District Court in Des Moines on Friday, in hopes of proving that the sandwich chain has no proprietary ownership of the term "footlong."

This suit was filed in response to a letter written by Valerie Pochron, a lawyer for Subway, alerting Casey's that Subway had applied for a trademark of "footlong" and that the Midwest chain must cease and desist using the term in advertising or face legal action. Casey's beat Subway to the legal punch, though, and is seeking a jury trial.

Subway has been using the term "footlong" as a noun for several years, offering five-dollar twelve-inchers in its 34,000 stores. Casey's recently started using "footlong" as an adjective on menus in about 180 stores, and plans to slap the term on sandwich boards in all 1,600 of its Midwest locations.

The Casey's argument is that "footlong" is a generic adjective describing twelve-inch subs and that Subway's attempt to trademark the term is "frivolous litigation." Subway has actually applied for two trademarks of "footlong" -- one for restaurant services, which was denied, and one describing the sandwiches, which is still pending. Several fast food chains, including Long John Silvers, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Domino's, have opposed the trademark being granted to Subway.

This isn't the first time Subway has been in a legal tussle over the term. The sandwich giant took legal action against Sheetz Inc., a Pennsylvania-based convenience store, in 2009; a federal judge in Virginia denied Subway's request for a preliminary injunction and restraining order that would prevent Sheetz from using "footlong."

The current suit is similar to a case in which McDonald's tried to sue the Malaysian fast-food chain McCurry over the use of the prefix "Mc." After an eight-year legal battle, the Malaysian Court of Appeals ruled that McDonald's did not have exclusive rights to the prefix.

Now grammar geeks and eating enthusiasts -- which is to say, many of us here at an altitude of 5280 footlongs -- are settling in for fascinating legal food fight.

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